What is surfing?

John John Florence certainly doesn’t let his wave-riding tools define him. Photo: Florence

The Inertia

A few weeks ago, I found myself enjoying a fine day of waves at a Costa Rican point break in the Golfito region, taking advantage of a clean, three-to five-foot southerly swell, shared with only a handful of local and visiting surfers. Paddling back to the lineup following one particularly long ride, however, a longtime acquaintance, whose annual Central American getaway happened to coincide with mine, asked me a question that, under the circumstances, I found odd.

“Don’t you surf anymore?”

Odd, not only because we’d because we’d been surfing together for the last couple hours, but because of the tone in which the question had been posed. Far from accusatory or challenging, his question was tinged with an underlying sense of regret, of sadness, even, that accompanied his perception that I had somehow strayed from the pure faith, and no longer loved how he loved; how surfing was meant to be loved.

I might add that at the time he was riding a heavy 9’6”, t-band stringer, log-style single-fin longboard, while I was on my thin, light, custom 9’0” Styrofoam/epoxy asymmetrical-quad SUP – equipment of choice, in both cases. In terms of accessories, he wore a urethane surf leash (no comment here) and I held a carbon fiber paddle. In terms of application, he took off at the top of the point and rode to the inside, turning and trimming through various sections, eventually kicking out at the end of the ride. I did the same. And yet, apparently because I paddled into my wave standing up, with the use of a paddle — because I rode the wave differently than he did — I was no longer surfing. 

Keep in mind, his lament wasn’t delivered with the inexplicable bigotry so often encountered in lineups populated by surfers riding “conventional’ equipment (“Die, mid-length, die!”), but with with what seemed like sincere concern that, due solely to my choice of vehicle, I was somehow missing out on the true thrill, the pure joy, of riding a wave. But if what I was doing out there wasn’t what I thought it was, my follow-up question was an obvious one.

“What is surfing?”

You could ask Oahu’s Todd Bradley, one of Hawaii’s most experienced, versatile watermen, having over the decades mastered virtually every possible manner in which to ride his island waves: surfboards, paddleboards, paipos, SUPs, outrigger canoes, sailboats — even the giant, oversized bodyboards ridden in Makaha’s “Buffalo’s Big Board” event. As of late, however, Bradley has become obsessed with a relatively new form wave-riding: foil surfing. Over a plate of Outrigger Club pu’pus recently, Todd fairly rhapsodized over its appeal.

“We’ve been riding waves in the same way for thousands of years,” he explained. “But until recently, when it comes to wave energy, we’ve literally been only touching the surface. How could we have known that only a few inches under the wave face there was a whole new source of wave energy — the energy in the heart of the wave. With a foil you can tap into that energy, and ride all different sort of waves and in ways we never could’ve imagined.”

The application of said imagination is why one rarely finds Bradley riding inshore waves on a conventional surfboard these days, but far offshore in the wind line, “downwinding” on his foilboard, hopping trains of windswells for successive rides that can last not for seconds but hours. And he’s not alone out there. In a recent (and utterly delightful) video post, brothers John John and Nathan Florence, while humbly admitting that they’re certainly neophytes, display their remarkable wave-riding skills as applied in a whole new medium.

“When we first saw it, we thought, ‘Oh my god, we have to do this,’” says the older Florence of foil downwinding. “It makes it like surfing…but way out in the ocean.”

Says young Nathan: “You really get a better glimpse of how waves work, how they move. Your read on the ocean gets way better.” 

What is surfing? You could ask legendary West Australian bodyboarding champion and “slab” pioneer Ryan Hardy. While producing a big wave surfing series for ESPN a few years ago, I found myself Down Under, sitting in a skiff with the cameraman, watching as hellmen Greg Long and Grant “Twiggy” Baker attempted to ride a 40 to 50-foot day at the fearsome “Cowaramup Bommie” on their conventional paddle-in surfboards — and not having much luck. The wave of the day, however, was ridden by Hardy, son of Margaret River surfing legend Tony Hardy, who, perfectly positioned in the shifting lineup, center-punched an awesome peak that, measured by our time-honored surfing standard, was at least 45 times overhead. Yet despite decades of amazing performances like this one, as well as having been at the vanguard of the now-vaulted slab movement, in a podcast earlier this year Hardy was asked by the well-meaning host why he had committed to bodyboarding rather than surfing. In the same way he might’ve been asked “Why soccer and not football?” As if what he was doing out there at spots like Cow Bommie wasn’t surfing. But speaking of overhead, Hardy’s thoughtful answer soared right over the host’s. 

“I love the feel of the bodyboard,” said Hardy. “It has a unique feel, even just lying on the board. And holding it in my hands, feeling it under my torso…you’re laying so close to the water, really feeling the power of the wave. There’s just so much more feeling to bodyboarding.”

What is surfing? You could ask former world Championship Tour pro and eminently respected underground surfboard shaper Dave Parmenter. A longtime resident of Kauai, Dave, 63, who during his competitive career made a fine account for himself in everything from maxing Hale’iwa to dribbling Huntington Beach Pier (not to mention years of outback surfing along the coast of Central California), is currently riding more waves today than during his world tour heyday. Just not in the manner, or with the equipment, that would win him any heats. Which, in Dave’s case, means paddling and/or sailing outrigger canoes, with an emphasis on downwinding and rough-water channel crossings.

Surfing, of course, is all of those things you listed in your query,” wrote Dave, via a recent email exchange. “But in the Hawaiian academy, it also means that a surfer should always strive to master all of these disciplines, and more. By my read of things here in the Islands, and what I have been taught by Hawaiians themselves, is that surfing is just part of your relationship with the ocean; your relationship with the ocean is not just a side dish of surfing.”

Dave asserts that he draws on all his acquired disciplines when, for example, paddling/surfing his OC-1 outrigger across the fearsome Ka’iwi Channel, between the islands of Molokai and Oahu.

“With downwind OC1 surfing, and even more so in the sailing canoe surfing, I find that I have to call on everything I have ever learned on a surfboard,” he writes. “I have to read the water, not from a static position in a lineup, but moving across a chaotic, pitching, ever-changeable playing field, reading and riding fractal sets of waves, not a single groundswell moving into a preset takeoff spot on the reef, but myriad waves that are nested in a Chinese box set of wavelets, chops, bumps, whitecaps, windswell and groundswell.”

As has been his way, Dave, who is also one of surfing’s great writers, makes a strong point. Still, there are many hidebound surfers out there who will look at what Dave is doing, not on a Pyzel “Ghost,” but in his 21-foot 16.5”-wide 16-pound outrigger canoe, and ask “Yeah, but is that really surfing?” 

The best argument,” says Dave. “Is that the surf-tracking app Dawn Patrol, designed for conventional board surfing, when used for my typical OC1 downwind runs will break down the data, and on average tell me that I rode 150 waves. In an hour.” 

So, what is surfing? Maybe we should take it all the way back to the beginning, and lean into, if not precisely the very first, certainly the most famous, and most eloquent, description of the sport by an 18th century European. This being, of course, those oft-quoted lines from the published account of Capt. James Cook’s voyages through Polynesia in 1777, penned by Dr. William Anderson, surgeon on Cook’s flagship HMS Resolution. Observing a Tahitian local very obviously enjoying a solo surf session at Matavai Bay, Anderson neatly captured the essential essence of surfing’s appeal better than anyone has in all the centuries that have followed:

I could not help but conclude that this man felt the most supreme pleasure being driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.”

It would seem that whatever that stoked Tahitian surfer was doing, he was doing it right.

 And by the way, he was surfing in an outrigger canoe.




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